Every year, thousands of young people say goodbye to their parents and move across the country to learn and to begin their journey towards independence. Those three years are unlike any they have experienced before, or probably will after. It’s a time of discovery, filled with choice but with the cushion of an organisation to provide support and routine.
National Star College near Cheltenham is one such organisation. It’s not a university but an independent specialist college where young people with disabilities spend three years learning, having fun and preparing for adult life. I had the pleasure of spending a day there.
Although I’ve worked with learners with disabilities for a number of years, I still get nervous about using the wrong terminology and accidentally offending someone. So I thought it best to ask about language early in the day, while having a cup of tea with some students in their on-campus flat. One young man leaped straight in: “For God’s sake, don’t let anyone call us special. I’m a wheelchair user, I’m not special. I can’t fly or lift buildings. That’s Superman you’re thinking of.”
Several of these young people had attended mainstream education that prided itself on being “inclusive”. Some found it to be anything but. One student was taught for an entire year on his own in the library, solely because the lift didn’t work and he couldn’t get upstairs to the classroom.
The students thought that teaching staff from mainstream schools and colleges would benefit from attending training at a college like theirs, and I couldn’t agree more. Here are five lessons that providers could learn:
1 Inclusive environment
National Star College works with people who have physical and learning disabilities, acquired brain injuries and autism. Many students use wheelchairs or walkers, or communicate with the help of assistive technology. Spending time in a campus that is fully adapted to meet everyone’s needs emphasises the lack of inclusivity in most environments.
The restaurant tables are widely spaced, and signage includes visual cues as well as text – it’s not infantilised or patronising, it’s just clear. Patterns in the carpets direct you towards the main communal areas and, outside, lines are painted on the paths to help students and visitors navigate the site easily.
The learning spaces are designed around what best suits the students, rather than based on outdated ideas of what a mainstream classroom should look like.
2 Individualised approach
The college is heavily staffed, but it must be a logistical nightmare to create personalised timetables for 170 residential students and manage classroom allocations – often with multiple staff required per learner. That’s in addition to about 1,600 other people using the services of the college every year.
While that involves a military level of planning, another aspect is more mission-based. Students’ programmes are conceived by determining an aspirational destination point, then tailoring the appropriate support and curriculum to help them get there. There is a constant focus on how students will transition to leaving college from the day they join.
3 Collaborate, communicate
Staff carry out extensive initial assessments, working collaboratively to develop students’ goals beyond their time at college. Those targets are communicated throughout the threeyear learning journey and that shared focus enables staff to help students effectively.
Departments and disciplines work together to gain the most the value from sessions. For example, in the aerial dance studio, dance teachers and physiotherapists join forces with learners to create engaging performances at the same time as providing physical therapy.
4 Learning opportunities
Every area of college life is seen as an opportunity for learning. Many students cite confidence or increased independence as the most valued benefit from their time there. These skills are the product of the environment, rather than being specifically taught. Qualifications are not pushed unless they are meaningful and valid. If a particular syllabus won’t be useful to a student in the future, there’s little point in following it.
5 Organisational culture
Considering that the college works with many students whose medical concerns present a significant risk, the relaxed atmosphere is palpable. As I walked around the campus with principal Kathryn Rudd, students stopped her to enquire about her dog. The leadership team is very much of the sleeves-rolled-up variety. They are involved in the day-to-day running of the college and work alongside the 700-plus staff, rather than decreeing to them from on high. Staff are fully supported in exploring their own practice and encouraged to take risks in their development.
Teachers are used to regular visitors in their classes. As well as therapists and support staff, there’s a stream of inspections by Ofsted, the Care Quality Commission and the local authorities that provide funding. When observation is constant, it becomes normal, removing some of the anxiety.
As in all colleges, funding and policy revisions necessitate adaptation. But here there is a difference. The college embraces evolutionary, incremental change, rather than sweeping restructures every few years. This makes for a stable and positive culture.
I was told there were few problems with engagement, behaviour or lateness, as students wanted to succeed. But, of course, visitors are only shown the best bits, so I quietly asked a student if he ever got in trouble or bunked off. He looked at me incredulously. “Why would I?” he said. “I’m where I want to be.”
Sarah Simons works in FE colleges in the East Midlands. @MrsSarahSimons